Whitmer lifts outdoor event limits on June 1, broad restrictions on July 1

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Midland — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer accelerated plans to lift COVID-19 restrictions Thursday, detailing her intention to end statewide mandates on July 1 and, for the most part, bring life "back to normal."

The governor made the announcements from home plate at Dow Diamond in Midland, where she revealed that outdoor capacity limits disappear June 1. The policy comes amid optimism that the state's fight against the coronavirus could be nearing itsendand means the Detroit Tigers will be able to host larger crowds at their home games this summer instead of the current limit of 8,200 fans.

In addition to lifting outdoor limits, Whitmer said indoor capacity controls also will rise to 50% for the month of June — affecting such events as weddings, funerals and graduation parties. She later added that the 11 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars also would end starting next month.

An indoor mask mandate for unvaccinated people will remain in place through June under the new order, which is expected to be updated Monday. The state will lift the broad mask and gathering orders on July 1, she said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer answers questions during a Thursday press event at Dow Diamond in Midland, Mich. Michigan will fully lift outdoor capacity limits on June 1 and, starting July 1, end indoor gathering caps and mask mandates that were put in place to curb COVID-19, Whitmer said.

"We look at this as the last moment of this type of orders," Whitmer said.

She added, "For the most part, life will be back to normal."

Michigan has been under different levels of emergency orders on gatherings and businesses for about 15 months. The first COVID-19 cases were reported here on March 10, 2020.

The Democratic governor noted one or more mitigation measures might remain in place for vulnerable populations after July 1, and businesses will be within their authority to keep in place capacity or mask restrictions.

The governor's emergency powers to order COVID-19 restrictions were struck down by the state Supreme Court in October as unconstitutional, so her Department of Health and Human Services has been issuing epidemic orders that placed restrictions on gatherings and businesses.

As part of a deal reached late Thursday between Republican legislative leaders and Whitmer, the governor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration will withdraw its proposal for permanent COVID-19 workplace rules.

Both Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist emphasized the importance of the state's continued push to vaccinate Michigan residents 12 years and older. Almost 57% of adults 16 years and older had received at least one dose of vaccine through Thursday, including those who got vaccinated out of state, according to the state health department's website. 

Whitmer and Gilchrist didn’t wear masks at the outdoor event. They stood in front of an electronic scoreboard that read, “Getting Michigan Back to Normal.” The stadium is home to the Great Lakes Loons, a minor league baseball team. Employees of the team cheered when Whitmer announced outdoor capacity limits would lift on June 1.

Doctors: More vaccinations needed

Some in the medical community welcomed the governor's announcement with caution, noting the pace of vaccinations has slowed so more work needs to be done. 

The governor’s plan is a “tribute to the sacrifice of people and the willingness of so many to get vaccinated,” the Michigan State Medical Society said in a statement. 

“But let this be clear: We still need to do more when it comes to vaccinations,” said Dr. Pino Colone, the society's president. “While our numbers have slowed, we need to continue our progress in order to protect people and further our move back to normal.”

Whitmer said the state had to overhaul its "Vacc to Normal" plan — which was announced April 29 and tied the loosening of restrictions to vaccination rates — after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week announced guidance that vaccinated people generally don't need to wear masks.

She joked that the federal recommendations sent her team “vacc to the drawing board.” The state wanted its policies to mirror CDC recommendations, Whitmer said.

"It just became very clear that it’s important for us to give people sure dates,” she said.

Republican legislative leaders have been urging the Democratic governor for months to ease restrictions and use voluntary encouragement to pursue mask use and other safety measures. House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said the plan shows a "growing consensus" the state could manage the pandemic "without taking away people’s paychecks, without holding children back for another year and without cutting off critical state services."

"Now we are even making progress undoing the damage of previous restrictions," Wentworth said. "Let’s keep it going and roll back all remaining limitations on Michigan families.”

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association welcomed the announcement that essentially allows full-capacity indoor dining come July 1 but expressed concern over securing a workforce that could meet the "unprecedented pent-up demand."

Some businesses, struggling to meet new demand, have expressed frustration with a lack of interest in open positions. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has blamed higher-than-usual unemployment benefits for keeping prospective workers on the sidelines and has supported a legislative plan that would have paid workers $1,000 to come off of unemployment. 

"It would be a preventable tragedy if Michigan’s hospitality industry, which endured 159 days of closure and 16 months of occupancy restrictions, was rendered incapable of realizing its newfound opportunity because well-intended, but outdated policies discouraged a full return to the workforce," said Justin Winslow, the association's president and CEO. "Michigan’s labor participation rate ranks 42nd in the nation, and as such, we need bipartisan solutions to address this immediate threat to our hospitality revival."  

Entertainment venues respond

Following Whitmer’s announcement, 313 Presents — which operates DTE Energy Music Theatre, Little Caesars Arena, the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park, Meadow Brook Amphitheatre and Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre in Sterling Heights — said in a statement that it's ready to safely welcome back guests to its venues. The entertainment company said it has worked with public health advisers, medical experts and government officials to develop a safety plan for the return of live events.

Health and safety measures have been implemented across the company’s venues, including required completion of an event wellness survey no more than 24 hours prior to attending an event, a no-bag policy, cashless payment options and CDC-recommended cleaning protocols.

"Today’s announcement energizes us to once again provide access to amazing LIVE entertainment," 313 Presents President Howard Handler said. "I know we’re not alone in the excitement we feel to see performance venues filled again. Whether you’re an artist, crew member or guest, your passion transforms any event into one of those unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime moments that we’ve been missing."

Guidelines will continue to be monitored as they evolve and ticket holders will be updated on changes via email and through 313 Presents’ social media channels, according to the company.

Over the last several days, 313 Presents has rolled out a slew of big concert announcements, both newly announced shows and makeup dates that were shelved by the pandemic.

The announcements have included engagements with Alice Cooper, the Jonas Brothers, Blake Shelton, Kings of Leon, Lady A, Dead & Company and more. Comerica Park will play host to Green Day, Fall Out Boy and Weezer on Aug. 10, the first stadium concert on the books post-pandemic, and the biggest concert Detroit has hosted since Garth Brooks’ Ford Field show in February 2020.

Meanwhile, the heads of Faster Horses, mid-July’s three-day country music and camping celebration, have been waiting for the green light to go forward with this year’s festival. The festival's producer, Brian O’Connell, said in a video announcement last week that “we intend to host Faster Horses in 2021, if the state and local governments allow us to do it as we do it traditionally.” The fest routinely hosts around 40,000 fans.

Declining metrics

Michigan will lift restrictions on in-person work in offices Monday, a loosening that was triggered by the state hitting a 55% vaccination rate on May 10. In addition, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration has said it will bring workplace rules in line with loosened mask restrictions in the near future but said, in the meantime, compliance with the state rules will be considered "good faith."

Also, on Thursday, Denise Fair, Detroit's chief public health officer, issued an emergency order that will be in place through June 30, stating that government body meetings in the city that fall under the Open Meetings Act must continue to be conducted virtually to prevent the risk of COVID-19 spread.  

The state Department of Health and Human Services reported 11,991 new coronavirus infections last week, a 52% decrease from the total two weeks earlier. Similarly, the percentage of tests bringing positive results dropped to 6.8% last week, less than half the percentage in early April, when Michigan faced spikes in hospitalizations and cases.

Michigan led the nation in new cases per population for longer than a month beginning at the end of March, according to CDC data. However, now Michigan ranks 10th.

Michigan's spring surge peaked in mid-April with hospitalizations and case rates declining quickly over the last four weeks. As of Wednesday, 1,556 adults were hospitalized in Michigan with COVID-19, a 60% decrease from the tally four weeks earlier.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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